At the beginning of the Book of Mormon, Nephi tells us that he is writing in the language of his father, “which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians” (1 Nephi 1:2). From the outset, we see the gospel message being rendered in a form that is separate from everyday speech.
Nearly 500 years later, King Benjamin requires his sons to learn “the language of his fathers.” He emphasizes to them that Lehi would not have been able to read the engravings on the brass plates and teach the gospel to his children if he had not “been taught in the language of the Egyptians” (Mosiah 1:2, 4).
Many times in the Book of Mormon, we are urged to “search” the scriptures diligently, not just read them (1 Nephi 5:10, 21, 2 Nephi 32:7, Mosiah 1:7, Alma 17:2, Alma 33:2, 3 Nephi 23:1, 5). The message seems to be that we interact with scripture in a different way than we interact with other kinds of text. We need to approach them with an active mind, an inquiring mind, prepared to be taught new principles, even principles that we didn’t see the last time we read the same passage.
Why did Joseph Smith translate the Book of Mormon into English using words and phrases which are characteristic of the King James Version of the Bible instead of the common language of his time? I think it was to separate our experience with scripture from similar experiences like reading a newspaper or a novel. This choice of language connected the Book of Mormon with existing scripture (the Bible), and it helped his readers to set aside their ordinary habits of thought and open their minds and hearts to a sacred experience.
President Dallin H. Oaks once explained why we use different words in our prayers than in our everyday conversations:
When we go to worship in a temple or a church, we put aside our working clothes and dress ourselves in something better. This change of clothing is a mark of respect. Similarly, when we address our Heavenly Father, we should put aside our working words and clothe our prayers in special language of reverence and respect….
In our day the words thee, thou, thy, and thine are suitable for the language of prayer, not because of how they were used anciently, but because they are currently obsolete in common English discourse. Being unused in everyday communications, they are now available as a distinctive form of address in English, appropriate to symbolize respect, closeness, and reverence for the one being addressed (“The Language of Prayer,” General Conference, April 1993).
I think this logic also applies to the words of the scriptures. It is useful to have sacred texts, composed of words and phrases which we can understand, but which are separate from our daily conversations. It can be useful to paraphrase scriptural passages in modern English as part of our effort to understand them. But the original text remains in a space apart from our daily lives and therefore invites us to “search,” as we strive to understand the word of God.
Today, I will be grateful for the language of the scriptures. I will be grateful that it is written in a way which allows me to transcend my everyday communication and adopt holier patterns of thought. I will be grateful for language which requires me to search and find messages rather than passively accept messages which are delivered to me.